Glimpsed through the haze of 24-hour news tickers, it can sometimes seem as if the point of football is to stir controversy. And so, in the wake of an extraordinary 7-1 beating for his team at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, the future of Martin O'Neill, Aston Villa's manager, was immediately the subject of intense speculation. So intense, in fact, that O'Neill himself addressed the issue a week later. "I will sit down here and talk to the chairman at the end of the season," he said in a press conference, "and we will see where we are positioned."
The chairman is, of course, Randy Lerner, the club's American owner and a man I find myself sitting down with at a very nice address in Kensington, Lerner's London base, on well-used sofas, in what could be a sunny suburban conservatory anywhere. Drinking tea and talking about football, of course, as you do. The Villa owner wears his wealth – and his experience of business in general and sports ownership in particular – very lightly indeed. He's interested as well as interesting.
And this is an interesting week for Villa, to put it mildly. Tomorrow, they face Chelsea again, this time at Wembley, with a place in what would be their second cup final of the season at stake. Villa supporters should be reassured that the men at the top at their club, Lerner and his chief operating officer, Paul Faulkner, who is also here with us, aren't focusing on speculation over their manager's future right now. Quite properly, the only person they're interested in discussing the subject of Martin O'Neill with is Martin O'Neill, and that will happen at the end of the season – just as it does every year, since O'Neill is on a rolling 12-month contract.
On the subject of football, Lerner does not do controversy. Instead, he wants to speak about his vision. Of course, he's hoping for the best tomorrow, but this semi-final represents another step along a carefully planned path.
"It's my sense that we're at something of a crossroads for English football just now," says Lerner. "The international breadth of the game, from players to owners, is uniquely distilled in this country. But, at Villa, we're very much concentrating on developing a sustainable local business. One that can function and grow."
Lerner's right, of course. He's not the only one aware that the business of football is bracing for change, whether that's change blown in on the cold wind of a recession or legislated for by the game's governing bodies. Since the creation of the Premier League, most of England's top tier have made it up as they have gone along, spending TV revenues on players' salaries as soon as they can rake them in. Sometimes, before they can rake them in. It's dawning on most now, though, that perhaps there needs to be some kind of plan. Lerner and his man on the ground at Villa Park, Faulkner, have been poring over their blueprint for several years now. And still do on a daily basis.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Lerner is now 48. Faulkner, born in Manchester, is nearly 20 years younger and left the UK in 2005 to work as an analyst across the range of the American entrepreneur's business interests.
"Paul was someone I could talk to about ideas and who could then go about putting those ideas into action," says Lerner. "He enjoyed the abstract: thinking about how to grow and how to develop a culture within a business. But he could handle the concrete, too: actually making sure the job got done."
Faulkner spent his formative teenage years in East Anglia, watching the best of times at Carrow Road – "going to the Milk Cup final; the hat, the scarf, the whole thing" – so it's perhaps not surprising that it was football that brought him back to England two years ago. He had, after all, been in on Villa with the boss from the start.
"I think Randy had the idea about English football for a couple of years," Faulkner recalls. "But going from idea to doing is a big step. One of the first projects we worked on together was a big piece of research, looking at every Premier League and Championship club; analysing the structure of the league and the structure of European football and how English football fitted into that; outlining the different competitions; profiling the current owners and managers; valuing the clubs; studying each club's demographics and the towns and cities they were in. It was great for me: I can't pretend I'm not a geek when it comes to football."
That research evidently filled in some local knowledge for Lerner, who had been running the Cleveland Browns NFL franchise since the death of his father, Al, in 2002. The detail was enough to convince him that English football was an adventure worth committing to. "In US sports, you tend to be pretty strictly limited by the size of your team's market," says Lerner. "When we heard that Villa was a club here that might be available, I had a strong feeling that a team in the West Midlands could be the chance to create something very special."
Faulkner's quick to pick up the story and points out that Villa's relationship with the city of Birmingham and the West Midlands has been the key to everything they've done since Lerner acquired the club from Doug Ellis for an initial £62m in 2006. It was also the reason they were attracted to Aston Villa in the first place.
"It was the right club at the right time. We had a pretty simple way of looking at English football, I suppose," Faulkner says. "We felt that a club in the right-sized city would give us the chance to develop enough support over time to support a competitive team. It's about connecting – or reconnecting – with our local fan base: with people who've stopped coming, with people who've never come, with the next generation. Birmingham and the West Midlands are big enough for that to work as a philosophy, if we do the right things in the right way and look after the spirit of the club. Whatever else is on our list of priorities, playing in front of a full stadium at Villa Park is top of that list. Football's about people coming together and if you forget that, if you start thinking the fans don't matter because you'll get money from TV or whatever, you're sort of ripping the soul out of the thing."
If filling Villa Park is the key to what Faulkner describes as "a sustainable business model", a winning football team is the right place to start. Which explains why £100m has been spent on helping O'Neill develop his squad. The money has, on the whole, been well spent. When Lerner and O'Neill both arrived in August 2006, Villa had just finished 16th in the Premier League. In the three full seasons since, the club have finished 11th, sixth and sixth, with a top-six position still very much possible this year (they lie seventh in the table).
Equally important as on-field success, though, have been ongoing developments around the stadium and the renewal of the Bodymoor Heath training ground. Those improvements are the ones that will generate the kind of significant revenues to help the club stand on its own two feet sooner rather than later.
Both Lerner and Faulkner studied history when they were younger and they've set great store by soaking up – and celebrating – Villa's heritage. That's helped them establish common ground with supporters whose families may have been climbing the steps of the Holte End for generations. And it's given Lerner a genuine respect for Villa's paying customers and an awareness that those fans, too, have had to adapt to new circumstances over the last 20 years.
"I think there's a palpable frustration among football fans right now that I believe we in the football business should be conscious of," he says. "Fans see TV revenues going up, wages going up, the price of their tickets going up and they're thinking: 'Hey, it's the same round ball, the same number of players and still two 45-minute halves. We don't get it.' Winning supporters over can only really be achieved by what you do, not what you say. It's no use just smiling and shaking hands and getting quoted with witty one-liners. We'll be judged by our actions: ticket prices, conditions inside the ground, how good our hospitality is and, of course, how the team develops. I'm not in this to win a popularity contest and I guess that's why I keep a relatively low profile. Winning our fans' approval will come from all of us doing the right things for the right reasons, me included."
They've been at Villa Park for nearly four years now but both men are quick to acknowledge that they've been able to draw on the experience of people who've been around the club much longer than that. Faulkner represents the club's open channel to an owner who has to spend a good deal of his time in the US for business and family reasons. For the last couple of years, that's meant Faulkner being at Villa Park full-time. But he's keen to give credit where it's due.
"I think people see a new owner coming in and assume: 'Oh, well, there's a lot of money and everything's going to be different now,'" he says. "But, when we arrived, we knew there was a lot we didn't know. We had to find out how Villa worked and we've leant very heavily on the staff here, many of whom were here with Doug Ellis. They love the club. They know football and they know the West Midlands."
Indeed, "football and the West Midlands" might serve as pretty accurate shorthand for the blueprint that's been established – and bought into – by everybody now working towards a sustainable future for the club. On FA Cup semi-final weekend, of course, people's thoughts are on one thing only: giving Chelsea a game. Lerner's plans for Villa, meanwhile, are aimed too at ensuring there are plenty more occasions like tomorrow.
"We want to build the club on our attendances," Lerner says. "We don't want to pay all our TV money straight out in transfer fees and wages. We have to invest in developing Villa Park, allowing us to generate our own revenue streams. At the same time, of course, there's a balance between growing long-term and getting the instant results we all crave as fans. The way Martin [O'Neill] has developed the team, though – and the investment we've made in our training ground – should give us an honest shot at competing."
Lerner will be breathless with anticipation come kick-off at Wembley. Anyone who's sat within a 20-row radius of him will confirm he's an owner who not only gets the business but gets the game.
Never mind the recent 7-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge, Villa have already beaten Chelsea once this season: 2-1 back in mid-October. This is a second visit to Wembley in 2010 and, given a bit of the luck they didn't get in the Carling Cup final against Manchester United, who's to say they won't be back for another tilt in May? In any event, tomorrow's another big day out, believes Faulkner, for a club that's growing. And growing into itself.
"You've got to be comfortable in your own skin as a club," he says. "You know, I think back to the final in February. Manchester United are a huge club, a one-off, for all sorts of historical reasons. But I wasn't sitting at Wembley, looking at United and thinking: 'I wish we were them.' I'd rather celebrate the things we've got that they don't. I looked along at our end of Wembley and it was rammed: scarves, banners, non-stop singing, absolutely behind the team. And this wasn't a little club out on a jolly. It was 10 years since we'd been there and it felt like our supporters were dusting themselves down and saying: 'Yes. That's us. We're the Villa.'"Reuse content